Data is an absolute necessity in today’s world, and many basic needs cannot be provided for without it. For example, efficient delivery of healthcare is impossible without the ability of healthcare providers to accurately identify their patients. Data is needed to establish patients’ eligibility for receiving medical services, locate their past medical records, and ensure continuity of care. However, in many developing countries a significant proportion of the population may be completely lacking any form of official identification: the World Bank estimates that as many as 1.1 billion people globally are unable to prove their identity, the majority of them in Africa and Asia. 
The scope of the problem is enormous: lack of a reliable form of ID compromises not only access to healthcare but also provision of education, financial services, fulfillment of political and legal rights, and much more. It is an issue that affects governments, individuals, businesses and NGOs. The problem has been acknowledged in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and by groups such as the World Bank’s ID4D (ID for Development) and ID4Africa, which have been set up to tackle this challenge. 
The good news is that the latest technological advances have potential to deliver elegant solutions, a notable example being being biometric authentication. This technology allows the authentication of individuals based on their biological features, for example fingerprints, iris, or voice, with high degree of reliability. The technology is developing rapidly, and novel sophisticated methods, such as DNA sequencing, are becoming a possibility.  More importantly, the cost of such technology is also falling rapidly - this allows governments to consider large-scale biometrics implementation programmes that will close the ‘identity gap’.
India has been a pioneer in this regard, having launched a nationwide fingerprinting and iris-recognition programme called Aadhaar in 2009, with 1.133 billion enrolled members as of 31 March 2017.  A number of smaller-scale, more targeted programmes have been focussing specifically on healthcare, such as the HOPE project in Cross River State, Nigeria which aims to provide basic care to poor mothers and children with the use of biometric smartcards.  Overall, more than 160 biometric programmes have been implemented across the developing countries by 2013, and the research shows that they often lead to higher data integrity, reduction in costs and fraud rates, compared to traditional paper identification systems.  As it has been established that better civil statistic systems lead to improved health outcomes, the current hope is that biometric technology can help overcome many obstacles in delivering essential health care in the developing world. 
Simprints is a nonprofit tech company from the University of Cambridge that seeks to break the identification bottleneck via building and deploying an affordable, secure, rugged, open-source fingerprint system that works in the world’s toughest settings.  Polygeia is currently working with Simprints to help them develop the monitoring & evaluation strategy for a portfolio of their projects.
Identification for Development (ID4D), World Bank http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/id4d
Storisteanu D.M.L., Norman T.L., Grigore A. (2016). Can biometrics beat the developing world’s challenges? Biometric Technology Today, 2016(11). Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096947651630193X
Jain A. K., Ross A., Prabhakar S. (2004). An Introduction to Biometric Recognition. IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology, 14(1).
Unique Identification Authority of India, Statewise Aadhar Saturation, https://uidai.gov.in/enrolment-update/ecosystem-partners/state-wise-aadhaar-saturation.html
Project HOPE, Nigeria, http://www.projecthope.org/where-we-work/africa/nigeria.html
Gelb A., Clark J. (2013). Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution. Working paper 315. Center for Global Development. Available at https://www.cgdev.org/publication/identification-development-biometrics-revolution-working-paper-315
Phillips D.E. et al. (2015). Are well functioning civil registration and vital statistics systems associated with better health outcomes? The Lancet, 386(10001). Available at http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60172-6/fulltext
Irina Mindlina is a 1st year Graduate Medicine student at the University of Cambridge